Ossington and Bloordale establish a blueprint for bringing laneways to life

“Laneways have been such a forgotten space for so long,” says Senayah, co-founder and executive director of The Laneway Project. “We need to be thinking of them as little streets.””


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Post by Andrew Seale  Photos by Cameron Bartlett

Post by Andrew Seale

Photos by Cameron Bartlett

If it’s Toronto’s boulevards and avenues that define the neighbourhoods, it’s the laneways that stitch them together. By Michelle Senayah’s count, there are 2,400 linking the city. And yet, the role laneways and alleys play in getting around, especially for locals looking to skirt foot traffic on the main arteries, is often overlooked.

“Laneways have been such a forgotten space for so long,” says Senayah, co-founder and executive director of The Laneway Project, a not-for-profit piloting a program called Light Up the Laneways, to bring pedestrian-friendly lighting to Toronto alleys and revitalize their place in the movement of people. “We need to be thinking of them as little streets.”

Senayah is working alongside Meg Marshall, manager for both the Bloordale Village and Ossington Avenue BIAs, to transform the laneway running parallel to Ossington Street between Humbert Street and Queen Street West and the one between Pauline Avenue and Russett Avenue just north of Bloor Street.

The pair just came off an interdepartmental meeting where they delivered a presentation of the concept to a number of BIAs. There’s a hint of disappointment in both their voices.

“We were first on the agenda,” says Marshall. But the format felt a bit dry, she admits, the structure they were called on to present the project didn’t give them much space to show all that they’ve accomplished in a short period of time.

But she says she’s hopeful; she gets the impression that it’s a question a lot of BIAs are asking themselves – how to re-energize the laneways and reclaim them for their neighbourhoods.

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“As BIAs, we operate on varying sized budgets so tackling the laneways is something that is an easier win than trying to redo an entire streetscape,” explains Marshall. “The community will see the positive effects of that sooner than us trying to rip up the street and create long-term capital improvements.”

The initiative isn’t limited to lighting – murals, greenery, and community activation will all play a part in the pilots. The Ossington laneway, for example, is a close sibling to the city’s graffiti alley.

“Before the BIA was even formed there was a lot of amazing street art that had emerged… it's become a destination for people,” says Marshall. “We'd like to add to it.”

The project recently received a $15,000 grant from the City of Toronto BIA Office Innovation Fund to help support community education. The how-to guide is pulled from a near half-decade spent chipping away at laneway revitalization around the city and working closely with the communities from residents and BIAs to business owners and civic groups.

“It's crucial to share that knowledge,” says Senayah. “There are more laneways in the city than we can ever deal with as an organization, and there are more laneways in the city than each individual BIA can deal with.”

Having a resource that truncates the common issues The Laneway Project has come across along the way, could streamline the way we look at these ready-made throughways and provide a framework for how we improve them.

“We're in a privileged position of being able to set the standard beyond what is done to how it is done and the process used for it,” says Senayah.

Marshall says they plan to show off the results in June with a block party. “We're creating excitement for the laneways… we're making sure they're not forgotten and they're celebrated.”

David Hessels